David Mamet's Race at Canadian Stage

Jason Priestley, Cara Ricketts and Nigel Shawn Williams in Race.

Jason Priestley, Cara Ricketts and Nigel Shawn Williams in Race.

By Denise Balkissoon

This is a Toronto blog, and here's my Toronto take on Race: America is weird. After seeing last night's premiere of David Mamet's play (starring, yes, Jason Priestley), my main thought was that we really need to do a Canada vs. USA issue of the Ethnic Aisle, and examine how very differently the two countries experience race and ethnicity. The literal black/white dichotomy of American race politics is always curious to me. It's not surprising that the Atlantic slave trade has such an enduring legacy on just about every single way Americans look at everything. But at the same time it seems strange that a play debuted in 2009 makes just an offhand mention of one immigrant, and barely flicks at the ever-changing, multifaceted view of race and ethnicity that is my Toronto-born view of the topic, and the world.

I'm fascinated with the ways that race and class and gender inform how we construct our ideas of how things work. The subject of this play is how these issues unfold in the criminal justice sphere--a rich white man has been accused of raping a black woman, and a partnership of white and black lawyers must decide whether to represent him. It's touchy territory, ripe for discussion of assumptions and stereotypes and morality. I don't think the play makes it all the way there.

All of the characters just seemed mad all the time--the two lawyers who supposedly respect each other enough to start a practice together didn't seem to have a particular history or friendship. Dissecting the shame instilled by racism was interesting: how that shame creates distrust, and dread, and calcifies the kneejerk actions and behaviours that we'd all like to be better than. But those moments were sparse, dotted between a series of predictable stand-up comedy jabs (black people are like this, and white people are like this). Race and racism makes people vulnerable, and that would have been more revelatory to witness. Instead, there was a lot of shouting and a whole a torrent of n-words with a b-word or two thrown in for good measure. I'm not a priss, it's just that it was predictable, not shocking.

Mainly, for a play that was trying to be fresh and provocative about race, it still had the straight white male experience as its core. But maybe that's just a Toronto opinion.